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Lionel Shriver Helps Chick Lit Grow Up


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Our lives are filled with choices and the consequences of those choices. And we often wonder what would have happened had we made a different decision. In Lionel Shriver's new novel, "The Post-Birthday World," her heroine, Irina, an American children's book illustrator living in London, has to decide whether to kiss a man she barely knows and betray her longtime live-in boyfriend, or simply walk away.

The boyfriend, Lawrence, also American, is a think-tank intellectual - solid, responsible and rather boring. The man she wants to kiss is Ramsey. He's a famous British snooker player. Snooker is a game like billiards or pool. Ramsey is dashing and unpredictably reckless.

"The Post-Birthday World" is written in alternating chapters in which we read what happens to the characters if Irina gives in to temptation, and if she avoids it. When we spoke to author Lionel Shriver this past week from the BBC studios in London, she explained why she created parallel narratives.

Ms. LIONEL SHRIVER (Author, "The Post-Birthday World"): Well, like most women my age, and I'm almost 50, I've also faced my choices. I know what it's like to be able to choose between two excellent candidates for my affection and to know that while each one had their flaws and each one had their merits, I'm not going to really have the information I need to know how to make that choice.

I think we make decisions about which partners we're going to be with, or with whom we're going to go out to dinner, without knowing what the consequences are, and you're not going to get the results until you've made the decision. That's true really of most decisions.

ELLIOTT: And then you always wondered what would have happened if. And then, in this case created a scenario for what if.

Ms. SHRIVER: Well, in fiction you get to have your cake and eat it too. And that's what I was enjoying, and which I invite the reader to enjoy, you know, both desserts.

You get the opportunity that you never get in real life to find out what would have happened if you made the other decision.

HANSEN: Did you write one narrative first and then the other?

Ms. SHRIVER: No, I wrote them back and forth. I thought that was the best way to do it, that that's the way my reader was going to be reading it, and therefore that's the way I should write it. And furthermore, I think the book works partly because of the intertwining between the two different worlds. And if I wrote each of these stories sequentially, then you would have forgot a lot of the details of the previous story. Whereas when I put the two chapters side-by-side and each chapter covers exactly the same period of time, that way you still have in your mind some of the lines and details that I pick up in the parallel chapter, and it works better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean were there some challenges though to writing a book like this? I mean as you mentioned, there are times when each story has the same scene but the context gives it a different meaning?

Ms. SHRIVER: Yes, what I would try to do is to do a lot of reversals. Sometimes you'll have a line repeated, for example. But if you look back to the previous chapter, that line was said by a different character, so there's a lot of slant parallelism in the book. It's not too neat. It's not too clever. It's not too tidy if it's working.

HANSEN: What do you think you learned about love, devotion, passion, jealousy, compatibility, that you, I don't know, maybe that you didn't know before you began writing the book?

Ms. SHRIVER: I suppose I knew abstractly that there's a downside to everyone. So I didn't learn that philosophically, but I did learn it in a gut way and working out the way each relationship proceeds and what the downfalls are. I was able to connect with, oh, you know, in some weird way it doesn't matter as much as you think when you choose because you are going to be encountering problems regardless of with whom you go. And you are not going to know what those are going to be.

In some ways it's relaxing. It's a little disappointing that there's no perfect answer. But it's relaxing to know that you just have to go with someone; you are going to pay a price for that choice. You're not going to know what that prize is going to be. And there are going to be some benefits that you won't be able to anticipate either.

HANSEN: It's almost as if Irina is the one complete person in this book. It's almost as if the two stories make one Irina.

Ms. SHRIVER: Well, it's a book in many ways about which Irina Irina is choosing. That is, it's an examination of what influence our partners have on us, on our lives and on our characters. And so Irina is malleable; in that way she's a kind of everywoman. She is a test case. You put her in the ring with one man and what happens? You know, it's almost a Petri-dish situation.

So she herself changes depending on with whom she's living, and I think that's accurate. I think that whom we choose to love does affect what we choose to love in ourselves.

HANSEN: This is a 500-page book. It's a big one. How long have you been working on it?

Ms. SHRIVER: Oh, I must have started it in 2004. That's a pretty long time for me, but I reason that it may be over 500 pages, but really it's two books in one, and so it's a bargain.

HANSEN: There you go. Lionel Shriver is the author of "The Post-Birthday World," which will be published tomorrow by Harper Collins. She joins us from the BBC in London. Thanks a lot, Lionel, good luck.

Ms. SHRIVER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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